Back in the seventies, a friend told me he was reading a book by Marshall McLuhan on how technology was beginning to intrude into everyday life. ‘Apparently there is no activity which human beings will not interrupt in order to answer a ringing phone’, reported my friend. We laughed about it, and imagined a few of those scenarios. We reckoned that people would stop giving priority to the phone when they got used to having one. In my household, we all jumped when the phone rang, but that was partly because it was out in the hallway and had a very loud ring, and partly because it didn’t ring very often.
Of course, as it turned out, McLuhan had seen the shape of things to come. We didn’t downgrade the importance of the phone, even when we had all got used to having one. I thought of McLuhan yesterday when a colleague was telling me about a piano competition she adjudicated in Hong Kong. One of the competitors came on stage, started to play his piece, and then stopped to answer the mobile phone which was ringing in his pocket. He calmly told the caller that he couldn’t speak right now because he was playing in a piano competition, and then he put his phone away and resumed playing where he had left off. And when the adjudicators gave him a low mark, he came up afterwards and asked them why.